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Nationwide Division One, 03/11/01
In the middle
By Ian Grant

For once, the league table doesn't lie. Following our ascent into a perfect mid-point in Division One on the back of this victory, we're exactly where we should be.

There's no argument, really. Of the clubs above us, we've lost to all that we've played, with the exception of draws against Preston and Birmingham. And, while these three points take us above a couple of teams that've won against us (Bradford and Crewe), the rest of those that we've encountered from the bottom half have been beaten, and convincingly so on several occasions.

So, in a sense, this result gave no further indication of our eventual fate. Sure, we need to continue to get results against the division's strugglers, something that we repeatedly failed to do last season. Theoretically, it would even be possible to sneak into the playoffs on that basis...although, barring a late rule change, we wouldn't be facing Stockport or Sheffield United when we got there. In most respects, and apart from the tough midweek trip to Burnley, speculation is on hold until December.

That said, this was - eventually - another refreshing, pleasing performance. As on Tuesday at Bramall Lane, it took forty-five largely uneventful minutes and a pause for reflection at half-time...but, in the end, we were convincing and worthy winners against poor opponents.

For those who didn't make it to South Yorkshire, it's worth pointing out that the first half here was exquisite in comparison to its leaden, awful, clumsy counterpart last week. True, our initial momentum was rapidly allowed to dissipate, a process accelerated by the painful lack of width to our attacks and an insufficiently quick tempo. Nevertheless, even as complaints rumbled around the stands as the interval approached, we were far from dreadful. Just not quite great either.

We didn't create a whole lot. As too often, we were attractive and pleasant and largely toothless. For, although Tommy Smith remains a thrilling threat and Heidar Helguson finally looks like more than a permanent bench-warmer, they both need to be given controlled possession and proper service to be genuinely dangerous. Just once, we found a cross that begged to be attacked, from Micah Hyde on the right wing after four minutes. Then, Stephen Glass popped up in the box to meet it with a header and Kevin Miller rolled back the years with a wonderful save in front of the Vic Road end, diving down to his left to claw the ball out. True, his kicking could be better...but he remains a phenomenal keeper in every other respect.

There was no shortage of possession. But the inspiration faded, until we began to resort to whacking the ball over the top of the Barnsley defence for Tommy Smith to chase...which is a tactic that occasionally works, but never as often as actually passing it to him. With Pierre Issa struggling to contain Bruce Dyer, frequently doing so only by holding on to any part of him that came to hand and hoping that the referee didn't notice, the whole thing stopped being quite so appealing. No great cause for despondency, but nothing to bring the stands to life either.

All goal attempts belonged to Watford. None greatly troubled Miller. He fielded Helguson's tame shot from twenty-two yards with ease, then punched clear from the head of Ramon Vega - on for the injured Filippo Galli - and watched Glass' ambitious curler sail over his crossbar. After thirty-two minutes, Helguson's dipping half-volley showed greater promise, but went straight at the keeper. Unlike Tuesday, it was all moderately pretty, enhanced by gentle November sunshine. Expectation is too high for "moderately pretty" to suffice, however.

Of course, a goal would've changed the mood completely. Half an hour after we'd last given Miller something to panic about, Neil Cox's delightful through-ball found Micah Hyde sprinting elegantly clear of the static Barnsley defence. But, without actually touching the ball, the keeper saved the day, standing up for so long that Hyde's attempt to go around him rather than shoot through his legs allowed a defender to clear.

Until now, we'd merely been unable to attack with sufficient mobility and accuracy. Frustrating, but hardly disastrous. With half-time imminent, we were nearly guilty of far worse, lapses of concentration allowing Barnsley to go close on a couple of occasions. Alec Chamberlain could provide reasonable evidence that he had Barnard's dipping drive covered and knew that it was going to clear the target. But he couldn't claim the same for Barker's half-volley from the edge of the box in injury time, which briefly looked destined for the top corner with the keeper stranded until it also went over the bar.

For whatever reason - and I'd like to think that the Mint Wispa, traditional and reliable with a refreshing, luxurious twist, played a significant role for the second match in succession - none of this mattered after the interval. From kickoff, we offered authority where there had previously been hesitancy, width in place of narrow over-complication, and goals to replace stalemate. Barnsley were left far behind.

Not for the first time, Stephen Glass was the key. Finding enough space and given the ball often, he was soon sending crosses whizzing into the Barnsley box, always hit with pace and precision and quickly bringing results. Perhaps surprisingly, he's proved to be the most valuable, productive and consistent of the new signings. Almost immediately, Chettle was forced into emergency action to clear from Hyde, and Issa failed to gain sufficient contact with a free header from the resulting corner.

At that point, we weren't to know just how comfortable this victory was to be. Almost while Issa was still holding his head in his hands, Glass flicked the ball over the defence as it pushed out, Vega volleyed powerfully into the six yard box without bothering to check for the linesman's flag, and there were flickering elements of Kevin Phillips' predatory brilliance in Tommy Smith's thumping finish from close range.

The confidence came rushing back, and we were transformed. Within a couple of minutes, Miller parried Helguson's driven shot after the striker was set free by a Patrick Blondeau pass. Shortly afterwards, the second goal was a perfect demonstration of Helguson's regained sense of assurance. So often, the difference between in-form and out-of-form goalscorers is the ability to judge when to take an extra touch and when to shoot first-time. On the end of a skidding Blondeau cross, he had enough composure and awareness to take the ball on his chest before firing fiercely at Miller. When it rebounded to him, he again let himself control it, using his head this time, and poked it carefully through a crowd of players on the line.

Until a bit of defensive wobbling in the last fifteen minutes - something of a recurring theme - we were utterly dominant and quite lovely to watch. Paolo Vernazza, terribly quiet in the first half and thoroughly superb in the second, went on a run and Miller saved comfortably from his low shot. Hyde sent a volley whistling wide from a Vernazza cross, Glass drove a shot just wide from distance. Clearly, we need to play like this more often, and against better sides; nevertheless, it's always immensely cheering to know that we can play like this.

It took thirty-six minutes for Barnsley to muster a goal attempt, and even that - Lumsdon's bumbling shot - was utterly feeble. Mind you, O'Callaghan should've done better when offered a free header from Barnard's cross, but headed wide. Until now, Alec Chamberlain was well on the way to a second clean sheet without having to make any kind of save...but that changed as Sand turned on a knock-down and the Watford keeper pulled off a tremendous reflex stop to push the ball away.

Then, as injury time rambled on and people started to trickle away, one last surging break. One last mighty cross from Stephen Glass, one more to Heidar Helguson's rapidly increasing total as he stuck the ball into the unguarded net after it had flown past both Miller and Nordin Wooter. One last cheer for an excellent second half performance.

There's one thing that our league position doesn't tell us. That's that we're a far better side than the one that ended last season, limping along and dropping points against some truly dire opponents. For, whatever else is wrong, we're well capable of shredding some of the more pedestrian defences and of putting the ball in the back of the net when we've done so.

From there, we must build. But we have something to build on.